Heroes of Learning part three
About a year ago I was cataloging a book, Friend to the community : survival and service in a wild world / by Nathan A. Barack(1) (self-published in 1991). This is an autobiography of a rabbi from Sheboygon, WI, whom I remember meeting. He mentions his struggle with health problems and his daughters grandchildren. One of his daughters, Sylvia, is a professor at Brandeis. I contacted her to ask if her father was still alive. He had survived the health problem mentioned in his book, but had died just a few months earlier. Dr. Sylvia Barack Fishman's area of expertise is the sociology of American Orthodox Jewish women. She was studying the community that Rabbi Revel helped create. Bernard (Dov) Revel, one of the founders of Yeshiva University, had a vision of combining torah u-madah.
Bernard Revel (1885-1940)
The vast migration of Eastern European Jews to the United States between 1880 and 1900 caused a change in American Jewish life and the lives of the immigrants. The industrial and commercial nature of American life forced most to compromise on Sabbath-observance, dress, schooling, and life style to become Americans, or simply to eke out a living. Leaders were concerned about the Jewish education of future generations. In 1886 two institutions started in New York, Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Yeshivath Etz Chaim (later to become Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, a part of Yeshiva University). The aim of Jewish education is the preservation of the Jewish people. Both institutions tried to bridge the gap of American pessimism and Jewish scholarship.
Dr. Revel set out to restore the Torah its power and unquestioned rule. He brought science to the world of Torah. He created an institution to combine Torah with science and secular activity. The College he created is not a world of its own, but is part of it. The institution excelled in Torah and science.
Dr. Revel was born in Kovno, Lithuania and was recognized at age six as an illui, who would later be a rabbinic luminary. (2) At age 21 he emigrated to New York and enrolled in Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). At that time RIETS was more of a stopover for European Torah scholars than an institution for training American rabbis. Revel discussed with his friends how to create a yeshiva to meet the needs of American Jewry. In 1907-08 he attended law school at Temple University in Philadelphia and took courses at the University of Pennsylvania. Without graduating, he returned to New York and attended New York University, earning an MA in 1909. In September of 1909 he entered a doctoral program at the newly founded Dropsie College. On March 11, 1912 he was awarded a Ph. D as the first graduate of Dropsie.(3) This was six years after being imprisoned in Kovno as a political prisoner. The web page of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (the descendant of Dropsie College) lists Bernard Revel as one of its most famous graduates
Dr. Revel's contribution to the establishment of Yeshiva College and American Orthodoxy is documented by Aaron R. Rothkoff in Bernard Revel: builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Jewish Publication Society, 1972).
The founding of Yeshiva College was not easy. Revel faced opposition from the Reform Movement and from the Orthodox. The Reform thought the idea of a Jewish parochial school was playing into the hands of the anti-Semites. Some Orthodox rejected the "synthesis" notions of Yeshiva College. During the Depression financial difficulties pressured REITS to merge with Jewish Theological Seminary. Revel fought any merger because students at JTS learned Talmud and codes many fewer hours per year than RIETS students. He felt knowledge of Talmud and Halakha were central to training of a rabbi.
He was a loyal member of the Agudat Ha-Rabanim and attended all their conventions. The members were his friends and colleagues, but he still had to constantly defend Yeshiva and its form of Jewish education. Revel's struggled against the assimulationst and particularist strains within American Judaism. By the time of his death the American trained rabbis from Yeshiva College and the older Yiddish speaking European rabbis of the Agudat Ha-Rabanim no longer felt comfortable in the same organization. In the short space of 25 years, Dr. Revel created and perfected a new brand of Jewish higher education, a Yeshiva where secular science and Yirat Shamayim are taught together and both thrive.
The high school department of the Yeshiva offered an opportunity to combine the students' general studies in a Jewish atmosphere while getting a through Jewish education. The high school trained students for their role in Jewish and American society. The idea of the yeshiva high school served as a model and ideal for similar high schools throughout the country.
The graduate school of Yeshiva University was renamed in 1941 as the Bernard Revel Graduate School in his honor. The school is an eternal tribute to his educational message. The United States Postal Service recognized his accomplishments by issuing a stamp with his portrait.
He is a hero of learning because his message of Torah u-madah has grown and spread throughout the world. His students continue to teach his beautiful picture of Torah observant Judaism.
Sylvia Barack Fishman
In Professor Fishman's book, A breath of life : feminism in the American Jewish community (Brandeis University Press, 1995) she mentions in the preface that she grew up in a home full of Jewish studies. She thought that when children grow up they write books. Her Ph.D. (Washington University, 1980) thesis: The watered garden and the bride of God patterns of biblical imagery in poems of Spenser, Milton and Blake, combined the disciplines of religion, ethics and English literary criticism.(4)
Currently Dr. Fishman is an assistant professor of Judaic studies and Co-Director of the International
Research Institute on Jewish Women at Brandeis University.
Dr. Fishman studies Jewish Orthodox women in the United States. She studies the American version of Judaism that Bernard Revel and Yeshiva University tried to create. She shows that contemporary Jews have created a hybrid new form of Judaism, merging American values and behaviors with those from historical Jewish traditions. She bridges the study of traditional texts with demographic and sociological studies. She has published detailed studies of the Jewish communities of Rochester, NY and Wooster, MA and is an authority on gender issues within Judaism. She is a frequent speaker and guest scholar on the subject.
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